Sunday, August 12, 2007

Faith on a Shoestring

While Milo's been toiling away in the sand and heat, I spent most of this weekend at a unit family retreat in the mountains. I feel guilty sometimes, having fun while he's away, but I needed this break. I spent the weekend hiking, biking, swimming, getting massaged, and attending mandatory seminars on how to build a healthy marriage. As much fun as I had, I came to dread those seminar sessions. They were helpful sometimes, but I take offense to being subjected to extensive Biblical teaching and group prayer at mandatory, government-funded information sessions. I take offense to being taught how to "achieve victory in Christ," and that "those who belong to Christ are already victorious." If I don't belong to Christ, am I not victorious then?

I was raised in an Evangelical Baptist family, and as I grew up, I began to chafe at the hypocracy inherant in the beliefs I was raised with. I questioned, I learned, and I left the church for another path. It's a real point of contention with my family, so we just don't talk about it. I wonder if we ever will, or if it's just better this way. Family issues aside, I've run into even more problems as a "non-Christian" in the military. I know the chaplain's office is supposed to meet the needs of all, but I can't help feeling like Christian traditions are being jammed down my throat at almost every turn. How is it appropriate to recite Bible verses and lead group prayers at mandatory information briefings? The worst part is that when I express my discomfort over being placed in such situations, the response of my Christian counterparts is so often, "Oh please, it's not hurting you any."

What they don't understand is that it is.

As I mulled these issues over in the travel journal I keep for my mother-in-law, I wondered how any devout Christian woman would feel in my shoes. What follows is the best I could do to share my situation.

Let me try to explain where I'm coming from here. You're a military spouse-- imagine your family has been stationed in a country where your religion is not welcome. The only comparison I can come up with is Islam. Imagine being stationed in a Muslim country; one where the constitution defines Islam as the state religion, and a portion of every paycheck is paid to the Church of Islam. Imagine that a large portion of those Muslims believe that your religion is the product of Satan, and that you "worship the devil."

Kind of Uncomfortable, huh?

Now imagine that there are no other Christians in your new community, and no Christian services. The Chaplain's office promises to include everyone, but they offer only Muslim services because there just aren't enough Christians in the community to warrant your own service. What's more, they read the Koran to you at nearly every public event. They spend more time trying to convert you than helping provide you with spiritual support.

Maybe you consider trying to find other Christians and start a prayer group. So you ask the Chaplain's office and they promise to email you with info, but they don't. While you're waiting for your email, you see a vitriolic letter in the Stars and Stripes. Apparently, some Christians in the next community started a prayer group at their chapel, and the community is protesting. Imagine that Muslims in that community refuse to use the same building as someone of your faith. The letter writer goes on to call Christianity the product of Satan, and Christians unfit for service in the Army and the community.

Lonely yet? 'Cause I sure am.

I am living in a community with no other members of my faith. I am surrounded by people who think my beliefs are either evil or illegitimate. There are no services, no spiritual support groups, no sympathy. The worst part of it all is that my husband is no better off than I am. He is a soldier with no spiritual support network, no spiritual counsel, and no guidance. He is on his own to deal with his family troubles or his existential crises. The very people who promise to support him make it abundantly clear that they support only those whose faith mirrors their own.

I totally understand that Milo and I are in the minority in this community, and that the chaplaincy has limitations. I can deal with all of that. What I cannot deal with is all that PLUS being forced to partake in a religion that I walked away from long ago. I think the chaplaincy serves an important purpose, and I take comfort in the ability of others to practice their religion freely. What I take offense to is being required to practice with them.

All I ask is the same consideration afforded to everyone else.


Blogger cinnabari said...

Ouch. And empathy, although I didn't have the same level of isolation with the compulsory Christianity. But I remember that feeling you describe all too well. I found my solace then in virtual communities, which I know doesn't work for everyone.

The mandatory meetings with prayers, etc, piss me off to no end. If it 'doesn't hurt you', then it shouldn't hurt them if, oh, you offered a prayer once. But of course it would. They'll never see it that way, either. I used to wear symbols of my faith that I knew were provocative to the ignorant, and I stopped explaining 'but I'm not a Satanist' whenever someone noticed or expressed discomfort. After all, my jewelry doesn't hurt anyone, does it? No more than their compulsory prayers.

Hang in there. (which sounds lame beyond belief, but it's all I got right now)

10:12 PM  
Blogger delia443 said...

Unfortunately, we can sometimes turn to frustration and anger when we are faced with the overwhelming Christian bent in the community.

The best advice I can offer is to remember that they too are scared, they too are lonely for home. Many won't give you the same consideration, but it's always best to lead by example.

4:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know exactly how you feel--lonely, angry, frustrated and helpless. I was raised by my Buddist father and spent most of my childhood in Asia, regularly attending temple. It was something I enjoyed, and I embraced the faith. My father was murdered in front of me when I was fourteen, and I was promptly deported from Cambodia to live with a mother I had never met in east bumblefuck West virginia. She promptly sent me to a private evangelical Christian boarding school. Apparently the presence of a "heathen" offended her. The nearest Buddist temple was 400 miles away, and most people didn't even know what Buddism was.

Doing, writing or saying anything that went against the school's version of religion was punished. It never occurred to these people that I might need counseling after watching my father die and being dumped in a culture I didn't really understand with only a passable knowledge of English. I tried to fit in, I even tried to convert because my father had always told me to try to adapt to the culture I was living in, but I felt completly lost. I was forbidden to meditate, use prayer beads or say Buddist prayers, speak my native languages, or practice martial arts, all of which had been a staple of my life. We were forbidden contact with anyone outside the community. I asked questions about Christianity because I was curious, but they objected to that. The fact that I pointed out the hypocrisy and contradictions in the bible and their own actions seemed to irritate them. Anyone who expressed disagreement was "prayed for," as in the holy rolling, bible thumping, "lay hands on" people and they'll just miraculously be okay sort of praying. Sometimes these prayers were forced. It took them about two months to decide I was "evil." They explained this to my mother, who told them to "do what they thought was best."

They forcibly performed an exorcism, the protestant version, which I had never heard of but apparently involves holding people down while they scream and beating them with bibles while shrieking prayers at them and then carving a cross into the back of their hand with a kitchen knife. This obviously terrified me, enough that I became relatively submissive and they pronounced me "cured." "Oh, praise Jesus, the demons have been cast out." They actually paraded me around the community as some sort of model success story for why "spiritual warfare" works.

The next several months were absolute hell. I've never felt more alone, and I just got more and more angry, but I had no outlet for that anger because doing so would result in further painful punishment. I came to completely loathe everyone and anything Christian. Next to war, monotheism is the stupidest thing man ever came up with. Eventually, in a fit of absolute rage, I took a knife and mutilated the cross scar on my hand, so that at least I would not have to live with that reminder. They attempted the praying cure again, but the bleeding was so severe that six hours after the fact, when I was about to bleed to death, they finally took me to a hospital. And finally I was able to tell a nurse what had happened, which eventually led to me living with an aunt in Texas who was fortunately much, much more sane than my mother. I worked my ass off, got my shit together and made it into an Ivy League school, where I met a wonderful man, got married and graduated with honors. The SOB that was the pastor at the school is serving a twenty year sentence. I hope he's somebody's prison bitch.

It took about two years before I felt sort of normal again, but I'm pretty much over it now. It's been ten years, and I still don't like Christians, I still think of that experience when I see the scars, but it doesn't hurt as much any more and I've learned to control the anger. My teeth clench when someone prays in my presence, but that's about it.

So the point of this absurdly long comment (sorry about that) is to tell you my coping mechanisms during and immediately after that crisis, in case they help you deal with the loneliness and frustration. Writing helps, it's a subsitute for talking to someone. If you can't form a group locally, try to find people of your religion online to chat with. Better yet, find a monk/priest or whatever is applicable. Rant and cry when you need to, that release is essential, even if you're just ranting to yourself. Try to find a reasonable Christian to talk to (I know, they're rare.) and explain your faith to them and your feelings about their faith. If you can find one that will just admit you have a point, it helps you to feel less frustrated. It's only one, but it's a start. Moving to the San Francisco Bay area helped; people are much more accepting here. But the absolute best thing that helped me was a form of meditation. I imagined my father and the monks I knew as a child, and imagined what they would say about the situation, the encouraging, Buddist based words they would give me, and repeated the scenario like a mantra. I did this while other people said Christian prayers, to block it out and replace the source of anger with a source of peace. That's what it comes down to, learning to channel that fustration into a productive outlet.

Good luck,

9:41 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...

Stuff like this is why I tend to take some joy out of offending christians. In fact my spell checker told me that not capitalizing the word was wrong. With a big red line. Even spell check is against us!

Christians in America love to act like they're this oppressed minority while in fact they're the majority.

Christ had a good message about how to treat and interact with others; christians fucked that one up good.

The TB

10:50 PM  
Blogger The Hackademician said...

I remember watching We Were Soldiers with Cinnabari and coming away from it feeling like it was more of a religious film than a war film. Gen. Moore said that it was the first Vietnam War film to "get it right" with the soldiers' love for each other, but it was also clear from the movie how pervasive and invasive the Christianity of those up the C-of-C was for those beneath them. It made what was an otherwise fine movie barely watchable. It's not the religion, it's the patronizing and paternalistic attitude to which they are completely oblivious.

Hang in there.


11:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a quick question- was this one of the retreats sponsored by the chaplins service? And if so, you know if is going to have a christian base to it.
Like all posts, they are offered here at our post but if you don't want to participate- don't.

6:24 AM  
Anonymous Anne said...

To clear up any questions, this was a UNIT sponsored spouse retreat, paid for out of federal funds. The chaplain just taught a few of the classes.

I'm not okay with the attitude of "If you don't like it, you don't have to go." Obviously if this event was billed as a Christian spiritual retreat, I would have chosen to spend my time elsewhere. It was not.

The point of this post was not to bash Christians or deny Christians the right to practice their own religion. It was written to encourage people to consider the feelings of those who do not share their religious beliefs. Nobody should ever have to sit in a family wellness class and have to take part in religious practices that they don't believe in. My example is not as extreme as AES's, but that doesn't make it all right.

IME, the chaplain's office here and in other places is outright ignoring the spiritual needs of non-Christians at a time when we need them most. I really hope there are some out there who can contradict my experience.

6:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps you should consider leaving the military (or Milo should). They are not likely to become more considerate any time soon, and the long term absence of a like-minded community can have very bad consequences for faith.

But, on that note, I don't know if you look at it, but I was reading an old post of Milo's that the Doonesbury Sandbox put up, "War and Faith." One of the comments was from a Buddist chaplain (see quote below). Apparently they do exist.

--begin quote
Dear SPC Freeman,

Thank you for your service in Iraq. I also would like to know how the chaplains treat you as a Buddhist over there, or if you have spoken of your faith to them. I want to let you know that you are not alone, we Buddhists are out there! I am a Navy Buddhist chaplain, and we have an Army Buddhist chaplain candidate. Please let me know if you would like to get in touch with him. I agree it is not easy to be Buddhist in predominantly Christian society. But we have had a long history in America, and our voices need to be heard, maybe especially in the military. Buddhists cannot be detached from society - is there anywhere Buddha's compassion does not reach? Does it not reach soldiers and sailors and Marines as well as scholars?

Posted by: Chaplain Shin | August 08, 2007 at 04:04 PM
--end quote

5:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, and here's that Buddist chaplain's website, "Buddist Military Sangha, An Online Resource for Buddists Associated with the United States Armed Forces"

I hope it helps.

5:23 PM  
Anonymous Anne said...

Thanks so much for the website. It's good to know that there are people who understand out there, even if they aren't right here.

5:50 PM  
Blogger fjb said...

I can't imagine how difficult this must be for you. I know what I'd say to someone trying to jam a faith I didn't follow down my throat, but I'm not in the military and not married to anyone who is anymore, so I could get away with it. It's not that I don't respect others and their beliefs, but I expect the same in return. Kudos to anonymous who found you the link to the Buddhist chaplain's site, though. I too, hope it helps.

9:45 PM  
Blogger Thomas said... might find this interesting...

The TB

8:55 PM  
Blogger toadman said...

I love Buddhists because they tell the best jokes.

Love to you both...and cabbages.

Get out of there alive, man.

5:59 PM  
Anonymous Solo said...

I just figure ones faith and beliefs are more of personal thing, and should be left that way. Humankinds problen is that it often trys to create God in it's own image. Just my .02 cnets worth.

1:45 AM  
Anonymous Jim at FPO, AE said...

I read your posting as reposted on the Sandbox Milblog. You're being abused, and you don't have to take it.

1. Arm yourself. Here are some useful references:

Army War College research thesis by a Navy captain (selected) chaplain, summarizing the issues for the military.

Chaplains' code of ethics

DoD policy -- see paragraph 4.2

Army policy: the 165-series publications

Air Force policy

Navy policy

An issue of the newsletter of the Military Chaplains Association>


2. Congress is getting involved, and if you're not active, it could come down in support of chaplains who don't respect your rights. Write your Senator and Congressman.

Chaplain Prayer Provision Cut From Military Spending Bill
The provision would have permitted chaplains to offer sectarian prayer at mandatory nondenominational events.
New York Times, October 1, 2006

Prayer debate puts military chaplains on the spot
The Virginian-Pilot, © September 23, 2006

10:43 PM  
Blogger JRH said...

Hi Anne,

I saw this reposted on the Sandbox and left a comment there, but then I realized you might not go there to view comments, so I'm leaving it here too.

I heard a radio interview just the other day with a local gentleman who started the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. I don't know much about the group other than what I heard but I as I read your post, I realized he was talking about similar issues. So maybe you can get something useful from there. Their website is

Take care,

3:40 AM  

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